‘What compels us to walk along the beach, our gaze fixed upon the sand? We can’t resist the smooth, surf-polished stones that have been tossed this way and that by the waves. Their intriguingly varied colors, patterns, and shapes draw us to the hunt, and soon our hands and pockets are full. Something about beach stones is comforting. They don’t age, die, or fade away. We perceive them as paragons of permanence and immutability.
But in fact the timelessness of stones is merely an illusion born of our own fleeting presence on Earth. Their features are a testament to impermanence, a witness to change. Every spot, stripe, fault, and fold that tempts us to pick up a pebble holds a garment of Earth’s four-and-a-half billion-year history.
A beach is a strip of loose material at the water’s edge, a collection of sand and stones assembled, disassembled, and reassembled by the sea. On the geology time scale, its ephemeral. And for most stones, the beach is just the latest stop on a journey that began eons ago…’
~ Iselin, J. & M.W. Carruthers 2006. Beach stones. Abrams, New York.
The headsail was torn, the furler broken and so on that fine day last summer I found myself down on Tinderbox Beach as the seabreeze swooped in and the tide ran out.
This beach is small and beautiful, with a jetty, yacht moorings and the great bulk of Bruny Island protecting it from the worst of the Southern Ocean’s temper tantrums.
I walked east, past children playing on the sand and adults relaxing and on to the rocks, heading for the small cobbled beach below Pierson’s Point. I hadn’t gone very far when a man stopped me.
‘What’s over there?’ he said, sweeping his hand across the northern extent of Bruny Island. ‘More of the same?’
‘Not at all!’ I said and passionately described the unique qualities of Bruny Island. ‘Not to be missed,’ I concluded.
‘More of the same,’ he said morosely. ‘I think I’ll just climb in the back of my ute and have a sleep with my little mate.’
He was well set up. He and his travel worn blue heeler had driven down from Queensland rather quickly, then crossed to Tasmania on the overnight ferry which makes port on Tasmania’s north coast. They’d then hurtled down the extent of the island to this beach at the southern end, all in one day.
Walking on beneath the cliffs, I found some beautiful rock platforms that were (at least to my untrained eye) tessellated. There are well known ones at Eaglehawk Neck but on my walks I was finding them in many more places. Soon I noticed a couple who had set themselves up in a small, sheltered corner and I stopped to ask how far it was possible to continue walking in this easterly direction.
‘Not far,’ they told me. ‘You come to a gulch that’s just too wide to jump. We’ve often thought we should bring along a plank to get over it.’
It wasn’t long before I came to that gulch. I had paused at many rock pools along the way – amongst the most beautiful I could recall seeing in Tasmania – but this gulch was exceptionally dense with beauty – kelp and a variety of other bright seaweeds. I regretted leaving my rocky shore guidebook at home because quite clearly a person should never visit a marine reserve without one.
The gulch was just too wide for me to jump. The pebble beach beneath Pierson’s Point was simply unattainable, at least today.
The other exquisite thing about the gulch was that it led into a small sedimentary sea cave. The rocks at its base and under the water had a shimmery pink glow. Right at the end of its deep resounding depths, small cobbles had been pushed up in a pile by the water, which was just deep enough to deter me and so I took a seat at the entrance of the cave and listened meditatively to what it had to say; and taped its voice.
I could have sat there all afternoon, listening to that gurgling water resonate in the cave but eventually I roused myself and walked back, climbing the cliff and finding that it ended up in someone’s garden. The man who had given me directions was now alone. We discovered we had mutual friends and I told him about the places I’d been and what I’d seen along the coastline and how puzzling the paucity of nomenclature was. We were standing on Mouheener land – they’d once enjoyed the bounty of the Derwent’s western shore, the Channel and Bruny Island. He thought the Aboriginal tribes probably named significant spots on the landscape for people in much the same we so frequently name them but I shared my different perspective, that places are named in accordance with long held myths, that the landscape is redolent with story but has lost its voice and then I walked back along the rocks, wishing I’d brought a plank with me.
The blue heeler was not asleep although his big mate was. We acknowledged each other and then I crossed the beach and walked westward, bound for North West Bay.
Swimmers told me the temperature was not too bad and in fact, that summer, the waters around Tasmania experienced heatstroke, their highest temperatures ever, the East Australian current extending further south than usual and bringing with it fish from warmer climes.
I had the rocks to myself. The sandstone cliffs were photogenic. I was able to walk almost to the point where North West Bay begins – but not quite. Still, I was satisfied to have discovered that kayaking along here was likely to be rewarding, and so after studying the ripple marks of ancient beaches etched in the surface of ancient sandstone I followed the sea breeze back into Hobart, feeling exultant.
But Where Does the Beach Start, and Where Does it End?
At first I thought I’d simply visit each sandy beach, but within the first few minutes of our initial walk at South Arm I’d scrapped that plan. Beaches are not disconnected from their rocky platforms or the coastline that surrounds them; it’s not possible to see the whole magnificent geology by looking at grains of sand even though they say a lot.
I was also immediately confronted by the question about what makes a beach. Bedrock geology occupies about 60% of the shoreline so there’s a lot of hard rock. The remaining 40% of the coast comprise sandy beaches; some tiny, waveless coves, some long surf beaches, each with their own sandy signature.
On walks with the geologist, we got to talking about how beaches are made. We’re a tiny island hammered by the Roaring Forties. Weather passes through and clearly subscribes to the view that when visiting, more than three days and you stink like a fish. The cold fronts run hasty circles around the Southern Ocean. I’m glad to see one go, I’m enjoying the mellowness that confirms my belief that there’s no better place on earth to live than on this island, when goddamit, that warm weather is shoved out by another cold front arriving in a temper and I have to down traveller and reef, close windows and crank up the woodstove, add another layer of thermals before heading down to the marina. But our beaches face every which way, so for each one exposed to the prevailing wind another provides a safe anchorage or a sheltered nook be you human, seal or seabird.
A ripple becomes a wave, the moon entices then releases the ocean making a yo-yo of the tides, currents wend their way through the oceans deep and deep below the layer we’re a part of, magma schmoozes through fissures and cracks melting all opposition, adding its power to the building and destruction of coastlines. With humankind intent on weighing in, turning tropical our polar waters and usurping the earth building roles of rivulets and the like, we’re bringing the Holocene that nurtured us to a climactic close.
I went looking for a definition of a beach. I found long, technical ones that sounded far too complex for me so I decided a beach was where there was enough sand that the word ‘beach’ popped into my head. Still, I would have to become attuned to where a beach began or ended and was going to learn that it was no easy matter.
That’s why I’m glad I started with the Derwent River beaches. I’d no sooner get home than uncertainty about what I’d noticed – or, more usually, failed to notice – would assail me and back I’d go. I’d go back often just for the pleasure of revisiting or to take a friend to see what I had found. I’d go back because I’d begun to doubt my point of view, wanted to confirm the beach’s perspective both literally and figuratively, and because, the way I see it, neither the beach nor I are different and neither are we the same each time we meet.
Percentages sourced from Short, A.D. 2006. Beaches of the Tasmanian coast and islands. Sydney University Press, Sydney.